Making it onto the small screen as an actor is one thing, but doing it as a director is another thing entirely. With this Backstage Guide, we give you the tips and tricks you need to build the experience, reel, and relationships that will one day lead to you sitting in the director’s chair while helming television’s next big thing.
At the end of the day, a director’s responsibility is to organize, facilitate, and capture the desired footage that will ultimately make up a film or television program. While their day-to-day responsibilities may differ based on the medium in which they’re working, they are always one of the top above-the-liners and authority figures on set, and more often than not, they have a hand in the creative process from pre-production through to post-production. So even though he or she may not be editing the footage themselves or initially capturing it behind the camera the way an editor or a cinematographer might, the director oversees those positions and ensures that work is being done in their vision—and therefore, the vision of the greater whole.
You may know the old industry saying, “Film is the director’s medium, while television is the writer’s medium.” And especially for the purposes of this article, that certainly holds true for television directors working in the U.S. today. Both professions are those of visual storytellers, certainly, but TV directors are bit more confined to the vision of the show’s creator and head writers. Save for the rare instance that a creator and showrunner is also the sole director of an entire season or series (here’s to you, Pamela Adlon of “Better Things”!), a TV director is hired to come in and helm an episode or two of the larger whole, which means that he or she needs to tweak and adapt their own personal style to fit the tone and visual language of the already-established project at hand.
That’s also important to keep in mind when it comes to working with actors. While film directors are given the opportunity to see the entire arc of a character through from beginning to end with the on-screen players, a TV director is just jumping in to what is presumably an already well-oiled acting machine. Few people on set know their characters better than the TV actors playing them (especially if it’s a long-running series). Because of this, TV directors may rightfully practice a laissez-faire approach with the project’s actors, and just focus on keeping everything technically running smoothly.
That all said, many TV directors will have the same training as film directors, and bounce back and forth between both mediums. In recent years, you’ll especially see one bleeding into the other by way of acclaimed indie filmmakers out of the Sundance Film Festival and the like making their way onto the small screen. In many ways, the landscape of prestige TV offers similar creative satisfaction without the stressors of independent funding and budgeting; and these are the directors who are already used to moving quickly and thinking on their feet—essential qualities for working in TV. So one medium doesn’t hold you back from pursuing the other, but both require similar roads to get there.
Believe it or not, a director’s job actually begins off set during a project’s pre-production process. While TV pre-production is quite different than pre-production in film (where a director is working on casting, especially), this is still the period where planning, budgeting and additional preparation take place. On a television shooting schedule, pre-production can last as briefly as a week (whereas film will be a months-long process). But with the main casting already out of the way, director’s here are working on storyboards and frames, locking in locations, developing a shoot schedule, and, yes, casting bit and guest roles needed for their 30–60-minute installment. If the project is so lucky, there will also be a period of rehearsal before shooting, but in the rat-a-tat pacing of TV production, that’s a luxury that many series simply don’t have.
The director finds his/herself working off-set again during post-production, where the days of hard work finally come together to shape the final product. It’s the period between wrapping a shooting schedule and delivering the completed footage to the network. As mentioned before, directors here take on a much more supervisory role and work especially closely with the editors. As Vladan Nikolic, filmmaker and media-studies professor at New School University, tells Backstage, however, sometimes it’s best for the director to sit back and trust the editor at work.
“You will be too close to the material and not see the forest from the trees,” Nikolic says. “It happens all the time. Otherwise, you will edit the film yourself, and only three years later realize that it could’ve been so much better…. Editing is a matter of talent, of course, but it also hugely depends on experience. The more you do it, the better you will get. The fact that so many people now know how to use editing software doesn’t make them editors. Editing is about telling a story and not about pushing buttons.”
A lead, head-honcho director is not the only director on set, either. Whether working on a film set or a TV set, there will be a number of first and second assistant directors, sometimes even a third on bigger movie sets.
Then there’s a first assistant director supervises cast and crew, keeps track of time for the director, makes sure filming is on schedule, and is responsible for eliminating and minimizing hazards on set.
The key second AD (2AD) is in charge of tasks like moving the cast through hair, makeup, and wardrobe. Scheduling is this person’s primary role, and he or she is in charge of call sheets and assisting the first AD as needed.
A third AD (3AD) may come into play on larger sets to direct extras and vehicles for background action within large crowd scenes.
No one is going to hire you to be a contributing director on their project unless you have the credits and experience to show them what you’re capable of. And you’re not going to get those credits and experience in the field without the proper training. By and large, most directors go to film school, get the training, and, once in the “real world,” work their way through the ranks through means of putting in the work, networking, and creating their own content for reels and proof of concepts. Take a look at 10 of our favorite film schools here.
That said, just as film school isn’t a sure-fire road to success, there are other means of succeeding and cutting your teeth than four years of undergraduate training. Especially in today’s creative landscape, making your own content is easier now than ever before, and one’s accessibility to a quality (enough) camera is literally right at their fingertips. You can use what’s available to you to teach yourself the ropes and fine tune your creative voice and vision, but to do so requires a self-starter attitude and a true drive and passion to be self-taught.
To that end, Nikolic suggests shooting something every day. “Not everything has to be a finished film, not everything has to be good,” he says, “but that’s how you train your eye and advance your craft.” Practice makes perfect, after all.
That’s the real question, isn’t it: How do I find work? Working as a director in TV isn’t like other 9-to-5 industries where you’re searching for opportunities on Indeed.com or LinkedIn and applying with a cover letter and résumé. Professionally opportunities come—just as with so many other facets of this industry—through hard work, strong relationships, and a leap of faith from you and the person who’s giving you a break.
You find work as a director by starting low. Get a job on a TV set and learn the ins and outs of a day in production. Examine the moving pieces at work and pick up on how it all fits together; how the director works with the writer, the actors, the DPs, the gaffers. This may mean a certain amount of time that you’re working as a PA or an director’s assistant or other entry-level TV personnel. Don’t run away from something that at first may be undesirable. This is where you’re going to find your sea legs on set.
While working this job and doing all you can to excel and leave a positive impression with the powers that be and while building relationships along the way, if you truly have a passion for directing, then you’re also going to find any means possible to create your own work. Put it online via YouTube or Vimeo and build up your online presence and brand. Make a reel. This will be your homebase of material to show when opportunity comes knocking and you have to showcase what you’re capable of.
It’s important to remember, too, says Richard Walter (screenwriter and longtime co-chairman of the graduate screenwriting program at UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television), that “every experienced famous, wealthy, adored director once had little experience, so [you] are in great company and should feel encouraged.”
To that end, it’s also a great idea when you’re first getting your start to learn the visual vocabulary of other directors, and doing that is just a matter of watching a lot of films, analyzing them, reading about directors (whether that be biographies, memoirs, or interviews), and basically teaching yourself how the greats before you came to do what they do. Few other things can be as inspiring as that while still an early-career creative.
Aside from the training and working your way onto a film set and networking and building a professional support system, you have to remember that you’re playing the long game here. There is no quick route into the minds and onto the sets of Hollywood and its elite.
So speaking here as if you’ve already got some footage under your belt as a director (better yet: independent or short film credits) in addition to the work you do on the side (you’re notgoing to get work as a TV director without prior experience as a director; learn more about how to become a director here), you’re going to want to revamp your public-facing personal brand. Recut your reel to highlight your best work (just remember to keep it to about three minutes) and redo your website to be an accurate and fluid representation of who you are, creatively speaking. This is where you’ll highlight your reel front and center along with credits, bio, and the like. And just as you’re updating your reel and website, you’ll want to check out your IMDb page and Wikipedia page (if they exist for prior credits) to make sure they’re up to date. The first thing someone does when told about an up-and-coming director is Google them, and if you’re a filmmaker, the first thing that’s likely to come up is your IMDb page.
This is all to say that while you may be an indie director who’s used to making their own work on their own terms, you’re relying on getting hired here on the showrunner, the network, and the producers, and even if you have a connection to get a meeting with either of the above, if you don’t have an online presence and list of credits that demands their attention, they’re not going to be giving it.
This is a question that only you as the artist and visionary that you are can adequately answer—but we of course have some tips. A great way of finding your visual vocabulary with the moving image is to document your daily life with something as simple and readily available as your smartphone. How do you naturally see the world? What catches your eye and piques your interest on your morning commute? Are you easily distracted by a bustling world around you, or do you find yourself honing in on a tiny detail in the surrounding chaos? Practice your framing, play around with lighting and toy with how natural light affects the tone of what you capture. After some time doing this, you should start seeing patterns in your work and really discovering yourself as a filmmaker. You’re going to, in the most simple and organic sense, have a documentation of how you see the world—and at its most basic, isn’t that what directing is all about? Then take that experience and start making your own narrative work. Set the scene and capture a staged reality through the lens that you see through day to day.
It also bears repeating that studying up on the great directors that came before you is of the utmost importance here. With so many wonderful directors out in the world today, it’s a no-brainer that you’re going to be inspired by some of them and maybe even borrow some tricks to the trade; it’s in examining why these particular directors and filmmaking practices inspire you that you’ll find the truth of your own creative vision.
And lastly, a great way to find your style as a director, aside from making your own content and studying and learning from directors present and past, is to collaborate with others. Creative collaboration in any sense is an exciting and contagious atmosphere for all involved. See what happens when you join forces with other filmmakers; you’re likely to learn as much about what works for you as you are what doesn’t. And that doesn’t mean the filmmaking styles and aesthetics that aren’t for you are wrong, either. Each artist is different; focus on what unites the work and how your work feeds off of theirs rather than one what makes yours different, better, or worse.
Jumping into an already-established series as a director is tricky business. Even if you have a professional relationship with the showrunner and they know and like your work, that doesn’t guarantee your foot in the door because additional series producers and the network need to approve your hiring for an episode. And oftentimes, those higher-ups don’t like hiring new TV directors to their slate for the first, maybe second, season of the series; they want established and experienced directors who they know can get the job done. That said, if it’s really meant to be, it will happen. Perseverance and professionalism are key, as is maintaining relationships even when there’s no immediate payoff. Play the game as if you know two or three seasons in, you’re going to get that call.
So now you’ve hypothetically got a job; how do you just jump into an established series that’s two or three seasons in? The most important thing to remember is that being a TV director isn’t necessarily about your personal creative vision because you have to fit the guidelines and mold already set in-stone from the showrunner and others; but remember that you were hired for a reason, and they have confidence that you’re the one for the job because of your past work that falls in line with what their project needs. So embrace that. Hold that confidence close, especially those first days on set when you’re probably terrified of doing something wrong or messing up the entire project several years into its run. No one is going to let you do that. But that also means you’ll have to somewhat compromise your what may be your personal take or vision on the subject for the greater good of the series. Be prepared to make that negotiation from the director’s chair. Remember: writers are the kings of this world.
It was already touched on above, but especially considering the high esteem Backstage holds the world’s actors in, it’s worth repeating that at the end of the day, they know their characters better than you do. As a guest director on a TV series, don’t enter the fray thinking that you can give their character an entirely new dimension that hasn’t been seen before; just go in there and capture the work that has brought the actors and the series success to this point. That of course doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be directing the actors, however. Lead them through especially emotionally trying territory or a challenging, nuanced scene in the script. Put into practice all the great director-actor communicative tips to turn in the best product possible, but do it in a way that serves the already rooted and well-loved and established character standing in front of you. You’re not the one building the character on a TV project; that’s up to the writers and the actors portraying them.
At the end of the day, whether you’re a burgeoning director hoping to get their start in TV or if you’re an established filmmaker already building your résumé of TV projects, you of course want to have your hard work lead to more work and more. Aside from simply following some of the guidelines laid out above and doing a decent, quality job as a director on set, you want to be easy to work with. Be personable and remember to always put your best foot forward. Introduce yourself to people you don’t know, but don’t get in their way. Remember their name; remember the funny story they told. Some of this stuff goes without saying, but it’s just about leaving a positive impression and giving back everything that a happy and positive set is (hopefully) giving you. Build yourself as nothing less than a desired and necessary asset on that set, and you will be asked back either to do another episode or to work on a new project with members of the same creative team.